John Williamson: Brain development influences driving

How our brains develop during our life can impact on our driving, columnist John Williamson says.

The most recent column about the challenges of senior drivers renewing their driver’s licence caused some discussion at the bowling club.

Some wanted to cheer the older guy on who challenged his doctor’s assessment, and arranged the on-road test for himself. He thumbed his nose (or something similar) at his detractors when he retained his driver’s licence. Others were a little more circumspect in recognising their own deteriorating faculties, listening to all-knowing family members and accepting that driver licence plans may need to be put in place.

All this raises the question about how our brains develop during our driving life, and what we might need to understand to remain safe on the road.

The brain’s frontal lobe development of young drivers has been recognised over the past few years as a factor in young drivers risk-taking. Waikato University research tells us that the human brain does not reach full maturity until at least the mid-20s. This includes the full development of the pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for planning, judgment, and risk assessment. While young drivers might understand risk, their reduced perception leads them to take more risks.


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Balanced against that is the early development of the nucleus accumbens in the middle brain that seeks pleasure and reward. Young drivers have an enthusiastic response to pleasure and reward, so the tension between lack of perception of risk and seeking pleasure, means they often think they are bulletproof.

Studies show mature brains are better at noticing errors of judgment and decision-making. These come from experiences gained, knowledge accumulated and enhanced ability to balance risk and reward. A few years ago this increased understanding of frontal lobe development led to the requirement of 120 hours of supervised practice for the restricted driver, before they gained their full licence.

Young drivers’ brains take a while to develop but us senior drivers have been there, done that, know right from wrong, and fully understand how to keep our brains in the best condition, so that we can continue to drive well into our 90s — right!!

Recently I reconnected with an old school classmate, Peter Gibbs, who lives in Nelson and has started a regular column called Staying Alive at 75. Peter and his wife, Cathie, are certainly a product of that product. They regularly complete 3.5km competitive ocean swims (completed the Paihia to Russell last year), regularly walking the various South Island great walks, re-establishing a previous career as a potter, and planning a seven-week walk of the 850km Del Norte route of the Camino in Spain, in a couple of months’ time.


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Peter flicked me a study about old brains from the New Jersey Journal of Medicine that identified that: “The brain of the older person is much more practical than is commonly believed. At this stage the interaction of right and left hemispheres of the brain becomes harmonious, which expands our creative possibilities. This is why many people over 60 discover new creative activities. As well, these harmonious hemispheres’ activity means that you can solve much more complex problems.”

The old brain is no longer as fast as in youth but it gains in flexibility. Therefore with age, we are more likely to make the right decisions and are less consumed by negative emotions. The brain functions at full intellectual strength about age 70, with the conclusion that: if an old person leads a healthy lifestyle, has viable physical activity, and is fully mentally active, intellectual ability can continue well into the 80s.

So, don’t be afraid of old age. Strive to develop intellectually and learn new things. Take an interest in life and people around you. Plan for the future and travel as best you can. Go to shops, cafes, and shows. Don’t shut up alone, that is destructive to anyone. Live with the thought that “all good things are still ahead of me”.

So there you go, that’s part of why I write this column. But this is the last one for a few weeks, as we’re off to reinvigorate this old brain with new adventures. Back mid-April.

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